Morris: Jackson focusing on his strengths

rmorris@ thestate.comJanuary 20, 2013 

University of South Carolina's Lakeem Jackson scores over Appalachian State defenders in the second period at the Colonial Life Arena.

C. ALUKA BERRY — caberry@thestate.com Buy Photo

THE INITIAL, MOST notable part of a basketball player’s game is his or her ability to shoot. Or not.

Take Lakeem Jackson. The 6-foot-5 senior has contributed mightily to South Carolina’s cause this season. Few players in the SEC outwork him. He ranks among the SEC leaders in rebounds, offensive rebounds and minutes played. He is a solid defender. He handles the ball well for a big-bodied player.

Of course, what we know most about Jackson is that he can’t shoot. Cover your eyes when he attempts a free throw. Do not expect him to attempt a field goal beyond his range, which is approximately 3 feet and in.

“I think that’s unfortunate about our society,” USC men’s basketball coach Frank Martin says. “We spend too much time looking at people’s warts rather than their positive attributes. ... If you watch Lakeem play, you know shooting is not one of his strengths. So, my job as a coach is that we’ve got to do things to take advantage of things he does well.”

That process began shortly after Martin was hired in March. Not wanting to bring any preconceived notions to the equation, Martin asked USC’s video coordinator to compile a tape of every shot made by every player the previous season. The idea was to create a positive frame of mind for Martin on what each of his returning players could do successfully.

With Jackson, that meant seeing that nearly every one of the 43 field-goals he made a season ago came within 5 feet of the basket. That was Jackson’s comfort zone. Then Martin went about figuring a way to fit Jackson’s game into his offense.

“He’s got good hands. He’s got fairly good athleticism. He’s got good strength,” Martin says. “We’ve sold him on the fact, Lakeem, big guys are going to guard you.

So, when we shoot the ball, go in and rebound. ... Now, he’s taken advantage of that athleticism to outmaneuver bigger, slower guys by attacking the rim off the dribble, off cuts and offensive rebounding.”

The results have been startling, and provide a stark contrast to where Jackson found himself a season ago, which was mostly on the bench. Jackson averaged 22 minutes of playing time in the opening 16 games of the 2011-12 season. Then he lost his starting position on the team, and averaged 12 minutes over the final 15 games.

“From sitting out and not playing as much as I wanted to last year, then coming in and coach saying, ‘Just play,’ it’s coming along,” Jackson says. “I’m getting that confidence back.”

Jackson entered this season with career averages of 6 points and 4.4 rebounds. This season, he is averaging a little less than 10 points per game and ranks eighth in the SEC with 7.3 rebounds per game. He is seventh in minutes played with 32 per game.

The return to productive player has been a two-pronged process for Jackson. First, he better recognized his limitations. He also dug deeper into his reservoir of determination, a quality established upon the death of his father at a young age and expanded under the guidance of three older brothers.

Recognizing limitations can be difficult for high-level athletes.

“None of us want to hear that we’re not good at something,” Martin says. “As a coach, you can’t go tell a kid, ‘Hey, you’re no good at that, you can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ Nobody wants to hear that.”

Instead, Martin says he approached Jackson with the reality of the situation. Jackson’s contributions to the USC team could be greatly enhanced by playing outstanding defense, rebounding and outworking opponents.

It was not the first time Jackson found himself in the position of being challenged. His father, Charles, died of pancreatitis at age 38 in 1995. Lakeem was 5 and soon learned to follow the lead of his mother, Teresa, and his three older brothers, Elrico, Lavonte and Donovan.

Mom raised the children through work at InterNet Services Corporation in Fort Mill, and Lakeem’s older brothers taught him the value of basketball toward furthering his education. All three older brothers played college basketball, whether at the junior college or NCAA Division II level, and earned degrees.

Lakeem aimed higher. So, he heeded the advice of youth coaches and left Charlotte to attend Christ School, a private school near Asheville, N.C.

“That broke my heart,” Teresa Jackson said. “He’s my baby.”

Christ Church proved beneficial on two fronts. Jackson shored up his academics, and gained exposure to Division I programs. Darrin Horn wanted Jackson to attend Western Kentucky, and when Horn became the coach at USC, he continued his pursuit of the athletic forward. Clemson, Georgia Tech and Marquette also showed interest.

Jackson was Horn’s first signee, and he started all but two of USC’s 57 games during his first two seasons. Then his star faded as a junior, and as it did, his weakness as a shooter became more noticeable to the average fan.

Now that Jackson is contributing again, he says he understands the outside fascination with his lack of shooting acumen. He says he also understands why fans naturally overlook the other less-glamorous aspects of his game.

“Making plays, doing the little things. I love it,” Jackson says. “I can sharpen some things up, but it’s fine. I like it. That’s my game.”

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